The Haverhill native has agreed to terms with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a one-year, minor league deal for the 2007 season. He will be a non-roster invitee to spring training, and vie for a spot on the major league roster with fellow first basemen Ty Wigginton, Greg Norton and former Red Sox farmhand Hee-Seop Choi.
If Pena makes the Devil Rays, he will be playing just an hour's drive from his new residence in Orlando.
"It was a situation where I had an opportunity to be close to home and get a chance to play," Pena said from the Dominican Republic, where he is finishing up his winter league season with the Licey Tigers. "It makes it a lot easier to make a decision when you have all of those variables."
Judging by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon's reaction, Pena should head into the Devil Rays camp with a legitimate shot to show he has gotten his career back on the right track.
"We like him, and I've liked him for several years," Maddon said last night on his way back from his Tampa-area gym. "(Tampa Bay general manager) Andrew (Friedman) did a lot research on him, and we just feel like he might be ready to blossom, we really do. He's done some really nice things in the major leagues, but the problem has been contact. I saw somewhere where his daytime batting average really exceeded his nighttime batting average (10 points higher for his career), which I don't know if it's a trend, but I really want to look into it.
"This guy is an above-average first baseman with enormous power, I heard he's a great guy and I know he went to Northeastern (University), so he has brains. He has all these things that I like. Sometime these guys are late bloomers, so we're going to give him a chance."
Pena drew interest from the San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals,\ and Texas Rangers. The Red Sox, whom the 28-year-old played 18 games for last season, expressed a desire to bring lefty hitter back, but without the kind of opportunity offered by the Devil Rays.
"(Boston) was pretty loaded with baseball players who are pretty good already, so it didn't look like I was going to get an opportunity to play," said Pena, whose spot on the Red Sox's major league roster would appear to be taken by Eric Hinske, another left-handed hitter who also plays both first and outfield.
"In all honesty, the most important thing is playing in the major leagues. I believe I'm a major league baseball player, can be an impact player in the major leagues and have done it already. To me, the opportunity was the most important thing. Tampa definitely offered that. It was a no-brainer when you balance everything out. Tampa was the best opportunity."
The 34-year-old Norton, a switch-hitter, is listed atop the Tampa Bay depth chart at first base. In 98 games last season, he hit .296 with 17 home runs. He was slated to share time with Wigginton, who finished with 24 home runs in 122 games in '06. Like Pena, Norton can fill in as a corner outfielder.
Pena's quest to re-establish himself as a major leaguer comes after a season in which he spent the majority of the year in the minors with the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. Once traded to the Red Sox in mid-August, he did impress, hitting .273 in 33 at-bats while also notching a walk-off home run at Fenway Park on Sept. 5.
His last full-time spot on a big league roster came in '05 with the Detroit Tigers, who released Pena on March 26 last year. His best campaign came in '04 when the former Haverhill High standout notched 27 home runs.
"I'm very optimistic and have a lot of faith," Pena said. "I look forward to wearing that uniform, I really do."